For all intents and purposes, Week 1 wasn't the debut Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator Joe Cullen and his unit wanted.
The Jaguars were nearly there to make a number of plays, but they ended on the wrong end of a 38-point scoring bonanza by the Houston Texans, the fourth-most points allowed by any defense in Week 1. There were improvements and positives throughout the course of the game, but Cullen stressed on Thursday that improvement is paramount.
"Everyone has to do their job, every play. Simple as that," Cullen said on Thursday.
The Jaguars had several chances to stop the Texans from scoring 38 points and from Tyrod Taylor looking like his vintage self from years prior. The defense had the Texans in several favorable third-and-long situations, but the Texans converted over 50% of their third-downs on the day and Taylor frequently made big plays when his back was against the wall.
"The first third-and-8, third-and-9, we had two guys within 1.5 seconds right on Tyrod [Taylor]. Hit his arm, ball was wobbling up. Nine out of ten times, that’s a pick—or it’s batted down," Cullen said. "We had two guys, one in back, one in front, we did come down with ball, then it was a wrestling match. Tie goes to the receiver.
"A couple situations in that game, right before the half, we had a couple really big stops. We had a stop at midfield, three-and-out after a takeaway by them and then in the red zone we had a stop. So, we’re feeling like, ‘Okay, we’re going to get back in this thing.’ And then the two-minute deal, so the one that went up. Again, we had a free hitter, not a guy that beat a block, a free hitter, right here, in the line. You’ve just got to make the play. You didn’t make the play, ball gets thrown up, it gets extended. One, I can cover anyhow, but no one can cover for that long. But within the beginning of the play, we had a free hitter on a four-man simulated pressure, not five-, not six-, four-man, free hitter. So, make the play, get his ass down—excuse my language. Get him down. It didn’t happen.”
Cullen was impassioned when talking about his defense's effort in the season-opener. The first-year defensive coordinator called plays for the first time in his NFL career, noting the Jaguars were close to making the plays they needed to make, but close doesn't count in the NFL.
The Jaguars finished Week 1 with no turnovers, one sack, and just two pass deflections. The Texans' offense was lauded for its effort, while the Jaguars were remembered more for giving up plays in a game of inches than for the fact that they nearly made the plays.
But even with those facts on hand, Cullen saw some areas of strong play from his unit. It started with a run defense that allowed 3.9 yards per carry despite the Texans leaning on their running game and Mark Ingram. Tyrod Taylor picked up one huge 29-yard scramble, but the Jaguars otherwise settled in when it came to their run defense, Cullen said.
"I will say this on the run defense. When you really dig into run defense, ‘What’s the yard-per-carry?’ We were a yard less than we were the year before. Okay, we were 3.9. So, if you stay at 3.9 for the year, you’re going to be in the Top 5," Cullen said.
"The tailbacks average 3- yards per carry, they had 37 carries. Mark Ingram [Jr.], he’s a powerful runner, I love Mark, I was with him at Baltimore. He averaged 3.01 yards per carry. So, the tailbacks averaged 3-yards per carry, so to me, it wasn’t perfect, but 3-yards per carry, I’ll take that any day. And then Tyrod [Taylor] broke out on a miscommunication on that one on the third down.”
And while the Jaguars only ended the game with one sack, in large part due to the defense's issues at bringing Taylor down. This was most notable when the Jaguars allowed a 52-yard completion to Brandin Cooks before the first-half ended, which set up a Texans touchdown. K'Lavon Chaisson had a free run at Taylor, but Taylor escaped and fired off the accurate deep shot.
"Well, he had three opportunities to get him down. You’ve got to get him down. Close, but no cigar, that doesn’t work," Cullen said.
As for the rest of the Jaguars' pass-rush effort, however, Cullen saw reasons to be positive moving forward. A big part of his optimism is the fact that the Jaguars finished among the top of all NFL defenses in pressure percentage according to Pro Football Reference.
“[I feel] really good about the pass rush. I mean, if you look at the—we had six hits, we had 17 hurries and everyone wants to talk about the pass rush. If we got them down when we did, we would’ve had 4.0 sacks in there, but everyone keeps talking about the pass rush. Look at the stats," Cullen said.
"You guys are all stat guys, look at them. We’re fourth in the league in generating pressure. Okay, look at it. Six hits and 17 hurries in 37 pass rush attempts.”
The Jaguars will need a stronger defensive effort against the Denver Broncos in Week 2. The Broncos had a strong showing on offense against the New York Giants in Week 1, with veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater finishing with two touchdowns and a 77.8% completion percentage.
Cullen knows his defense has to be better than they were in Week 1. But he also believes there area areas of strength that can help propel the unit moving forward, even against a hard test like the Broncos' offense.
:I mean, Denver is a really good team, they’re well-coached, they’ve got skill and even without [Jerry] Jeudy. I mean, shoot, No. 1 [KJ Hamler], splitting double coverage. Should’ve had two touchdowns but they’ve got a great run scheme, to me, they’ve got one of the best offensive line coaches in football, went against him when he was in Tennessee, there for three years. And then, in Baltimore when he was at Pittsburgh," Cullen said.
"Scheme wise, they present a lot of problems in the run game. And then, we’ve just got to do our jobs, all 11 at the same time doing our jobs.”